The poetics of the oppressed is essentially the poetics of liberation: the spectator no longer delegates power to the characters either to think or to act in his place. The spectator frees himself; he thinks and acts for himself! Theatre is action! – Augusto Boal, theatre practitioner and founder of Theatre of the Oppressed
Boal, the Brazilian theatre-maker and political activist, elaborated on his method the Theatre of the Oppressed (T.O.) in the 1970s where he used theatre as a means to promote social and political change. The audience, or spectators, become active and are “spect-actors” who show, analyse, and transform the reality they are living.
Today, T.O. features in many theatre training and social justice-oriented programs in universities and colleges around the world. It has been deployed in interesting and generative ways in multiple spaces. It is more relevant than ever today; with the political zeitgeist we face in the world as we reckon with the pandemic and histories of oppression and structural injustices. We took this opportunity to reﬂect on how T.O. can be deployed in this speciﬁc moment, with Marc Weinblatt, a T.O. practitioner, activist and co-founder of Mandala Center for Change, US, at a recent Unrehearsed Futures (Season 2) conversation.
Knowing the struggle
As a white, male, cisgendered Jew, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor, Weinblatt says he did not identify as a Jew for a long time. His “internalised anti-Semitism” was so strong that he worked very hard to assimilate.
“I’m sure a lot of people understand how it’s a survival mechanism in the face of oppression,” explains, “But then, here I am now. Cut to me as an adult, in my early 30s. I’m a straight, White guy. Marginalisation is not something I have a lot of understanding of in my day-to-day life. I have walked the earth with a lot of agency, a lot of privilege, and most of that without even realising it.”
However, there was seminal moment in his life when it felt like all his ancestors, hidden deep in his body and bones, ﬂooded into his consciousness and Weinblatt spent the better part of a night weeping for his own people. He realised why he was drawn to T.O. “I’m drawn to it because some part of me knows the struggle in a very deep and embodied way,” he says.
Theatre of liberation
One of the key methods in T.O. is to initiate conversations that clear space for people, who otherwise wouldn’t necessarily have access or space to talk from a position of power, with agency themselves, to articulate and make sense of the world from their speciﬁc position. This is done by ensuring that people in the room – be it a facilitator or audience member – don’t take centre stage in shaping how those people imagine solutions and ways in which they would want to enact substantive change.
In this, the focus of the work is on the “oppressed” as opposed to the “oppressor”, which creates a tension in itself. It is asking the disempowered and disenfranchised to, in some ways, re-perform their precarity to do the work again.
In such a situation, how do we rethink T.O. in ways that shifts the locus of action back to those who do have the power to make substantive and meaningful change?
The short answer to that question, is humility, Weinblatt states. “I don’t know anything about your life. Even if I know you, I don’t know you. And if I don’t share the struggle that you have, I can’t possibly know; I can only speculate,” he adds.
If we go back to the roots of T.O., it came from a Marxist, class-based route. Boal envisioned it as about the oppressed, by the oppressed, and for the oppressed. It was revolutionary form coming out of the Latin American context in the 1970s, where military regimes saw Boal’s teachings and activism as a threat. T.O. was about putting marginalised – or homogenous groups with a shared struggle, as he called them – people in a room and trusting they are going to explore solutions to their own struggles. “They decide what stories are important and are shared. They decide what the solutions are or might be the alternatives,” adds Weinblatt.
But when Boal was tortured and exiled, and eventually landed in Europe, he began working with stories of alienation and loneliness. He worked a lot more with the internal struggles of people who were ostensibly less “oppressed”, says Weinblatt. “So, the work adapted,” he says. “And it was always, for him, and in a very fundamentalist T.O. way, about social justice and the needs of the marginalised. But it was interesting how so many leaders of the work were white guys. And that replicates some of the problems of society over who is struggling and who is holding the power.”
Weinblatt emphasises that the world is rapidly changing, which is making him re-think his place in T.O. He reveals he is at a point where he is stepping back from being the “white guy facilitating the room” to mentoring and sharing the tools with the next generation of T.O. practitioners.
“I’m at a point where perhaps I shouldn’t be leading the work anymore,” he says. “That’s not to say I don’t have something to oﬀer. Experience is valuable. But I feel like I must be even humbler than ever. I’ve got to get out of the way – there’s new leadership coming and that has to happen. Whether that be in the U.S. Congress or facilitating Theatre of the Oppressed. We have a Mentorship program and most of who I’ve been focused on supporting is women and People of Color.”
How to be a protagonist in social change?
It comes back to cultivating humility in doing T.O. It comes back to being willing to de-centre yourself, recognising that perhaps it may not be a struggle that is shared or distributed equally across the room.
A couple of episodes ago, South African theatre maker and co-founder of Empatheatre, Neil Coppen wondered what it would mean to rethink theatre of the “oppressed” and begin talking about theatre of the “oppressor”. Is there a space and are there ways to imagine the tools of T.O. to address people who have immediate access to and manifest access to power? What does one do with the people who hold the power? What tools can we use to start engaging with that space?
Weinblatt shares he jokingly began calling a branch of his work as Theatre of the Oppressor, which he started to develop a few years into his practice. That basically is working with privilege and the actions potential allies can take – working with white people on racism, with men on sexism, with cis people on transphobia etc. He notes that the irony is that most people carry some amount of both marginalisation and privilege.
“I’m using anti-oppression jargon, but some people have more or less social rank,” he explains. “In the United States, almost every single president has been a straight, white,
able-bodied, Christian, men of money. Agencies straight across the boards. Except for Barack Obama, who is a straight, black, able-bodied Christian man of money. Deﬁnitely oppressed racially but carrying a huge amount of privilege in in other areas.”
Everyone is complicated. Some are more marginalised than others. And depending on context, some marginalisations matter a lot more on a life and death level, says Weinblatt. For the most part, he admits, he didn’t feel his marginalisation as a Jew was life or death until Donald Trump became president. Very early on in his work, he realised that even with an ostensibly homogenous population with a shared struggle, there were systemic power dynamics in the room. For example, street youth who could all agree that parents suck and police suck, there were often, for example, queer kids alongside homophobes in the room. This made him re-think his role as a social change agent, an activist, and also a facilitator: What was his role as the white person, as a man? How could he most eﬀectively be part of dismantling these structures? “So, I realised very early that everybody has got to be a protagonist in social change.”
In T.O. Boal gave the image of a person standing with his foot on top of the oppressed, who is lying down. In Forum Theatre, one of T.O.’s famous problem-solving structures, the focus is on what does the person on the ground do to get up. “This is 25 years ago, and I realised, it would be a lot easier if the guy took oﬀ his foot. Why make the oppressed do all the work?” he asks.
There is an additional layer of complexity in T.O. which is get the oppressor to realise they have their boot on somebody’s neck and that the work that needs to happen is lifting that weight ﬁrst. There is, however, a risk in re-centering in doing so.
It is part of the conundrum, says Weinblatt. “That work is controversial within the Theatre of the Oppressed community because it does run the risk of re-centering. But I think accountability to those who are struggling with the problem, like men being accountable to women on how to be part of the solution, white people in the US being accountable to Black and brown people in the US, is necessary. It is not me deciding what’s good to end racism. It is those who are in the struggle, who have to ultimately make the call for social change. If it’s aﬀecting you, you know best,” he elaborates.
He also cautions that being in such spaces, it is very easy to perpetuate a coloniser mindset, which he summarises as, “We know what you need. Particularly if you’re not the one struggling with the oppression. So that’s why I keep going back to humility. And when in doubt, ask the other person: What do you want?”. The stepping away is necessary if one doesn’t have the answers and especially since it is not possible for one to have all solutions.
Cultivating an interdisciplinary approach to T.O.
Weinblatt ﬁnds that it is far easier to share when the work is done separately in aﬃnity or caucus groups. “You get a lot more honesty, in both the marginalised group and the dominant culture group. People tend to speak more frankly in separate spaces,” he shares his observation.
Weinblatt shares an example to highlight the importance of this. Years ago, he was a participant in a Compassionate Listening workshop, doing healing work with a group of Germans and Jews when a well-meaning German participant broke down and began sharing the Nazi shame he carries, to Weinblatt. This triggered Weinblatt deeply and he recalls that even though he very much cared for this person, in that moment of awakened historical trauma, he just needed to get away from him and be around Jews at that moment. “In this moment of my own trauma coming up, I just wanted to be with my own people,” he says. “And at the same time, I was able to step out of my own story and ﬂash on my experience around race in the US and realise, oh, that is what my friends of color are talking about.”
“There is a lot of powerful work that happens in separate spaces, and it’s necessary. You can relax a little bit, even for a moment. I’m not going to be able to facilitate women around sexism. I’m not the best one to do that.”
At the Mandala Center for Change, Weinblatt and his colleagues use interdisciplinary methods and tools within T.O. He declares that he is neither a T.O. purist nor is he attached to methodology. “We do didactic work, Playback Theatre, meditation, and other diﬀerent tools for diﬀerent contexts, for diﬀerent moments. It depends: What’s the goal? Who is in the room? Who is holding space? What is needed? What happened in the world yesterday? What do people want? What do people need? It is a humility, with methodology,” he shares.
“No tool is the end all and be all. Theatre of the Oppressed is awesome, it’s fantastic. And it can also create a mess,” Weinblatt believes. “In and of itself, T.O. holds trauma really poorly. It’s not that trauma is a new thing in 2021. Trauma has always been there, and always will be. But the consciousness and the attention to trauma and the unwillingness to back away from it, I’ve never seen it at the level it is now. So, we’re taking a much more trauma informed and trauma responsive approach in our work,” he says.
“How do you how do you address trauma as it comes up? Or how do you create an environment where that trauma, if and when it comes up, can be held? Even there is a lot of ‘learning’ and ‘useful’ dialogue, what is the cost of that dialogue and to whom? We have to stay mindful of all that.”
“So, if the goal is social change and to have a just and healthy world for all people, what do we need to do NOW? It doesn’t have to be the way it’s been done. We have to be willing to, as one of our team, Lalenja Harrington calls it, play ’52 Pickup’ – throwing the whole deck of cards in the air and see where it lands. It is irresponsible to not change in 2021,” he adds as the conversation comes to a close.
Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
Access the entire session on our YouTube channel: